Last year Peter Gabriel recorded Scratch My Back – an audacious covers project re-working the likes of Elbow, Arcade Fire and Lou Reed and inviting them to reciprocate with a companion release. While the latter stages of the project floundered there was certainly some engaging work from Gabriel himself. However, those waiting for any new material are likely to find their hopes dashed as this new album sees the former Genesis front man breathing new life into his own back catalogue.
New Blood may be a slight misnomer for this disc – Gabriel’s vocals seem to have hardly changed over the years and his performance on these tracks deviates little from the originals. That’s no mean feat considering the length of his career and his voice is certainly this album’s greatest asset. The new blood of the title is supplied by a full orchestra adding an extra dimension to the work.
The results are mixed. Sometimes the orchestra’s presence feels underplayed but when allowed to dominate the results are great. Red Rain is tremendous and In Your Eyes becomes infused with a Michael Nyman-esque urgency. It’s Gabriel’s most dramatic tracks that benefit the most from this new approach – The Intruder and Digging In The Dirt become intense and contain a cinematic quality that echoes a trademark Bernard Hermann score.
This disc represents a natural extension of recent concerts and there is little doubt that in a live environment this would have been a breathtaking. Likewise, there are plenty of headphone moments but the album might not be suited for everything in between. This work demands your attention.
Encounters with some of Gabriel’s lesser known songs provide rewards but it’s the reworkings of some of his biggest hits that tend to frustrate. Don’t Give Up admirably survives the absence of Kate Bush, but it’s always been a minimalist track so there’s little for the orchestra to do. As a result Gabriel feels the need to tack an unnecessary extra refrain on the end and such things can’t help but feel apocryphal.
Solsbury Hill is prefaced with four minutes of ambient sound recorded – where else? – On Solsbury Hill itself. It’s perhaps the bravest, most audacious moment on the album. The original is rich with strings and arguably perfect already. In fact, here the orchestra seems to have a sanitising effect and it’s not unlike muzak piped into a hotel lobby. Like Don’t Give Up, there’s an extra bit at the end, but the new outro’s tribal qualities provide a nod to the world music influences that have enriched Gabriel’s career.
New Blood has its moments, but it’s hardly an essential purchase. Like Scratch My Back it’s a flawed but noble effort – at a time when shelves begin to start groaning under the weight of umpteen best of anthologies, the idea of doing something a bit different is to be lauded. After connecting with contemporary bands and this zestful rediscovery of his back catalogue it’s surely time Gabriel put this blood transfusion to work on some new material.